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X-ray Specs: Seeing data in places I'd never thought to look

In early June of this year I attended Kerning Conference. The event revolved around typography, of course, and included several days of workshops followed by a day of lectures from several celebrated designers. Tobias Frere-Jones spoke about his fascinating research into the relationship between type design and the counterfeiting of documents. Laura Worthington led us into her beautiful world of hand-drawn lettering, and her process of making them feel authentic on the computer. It was a well-organized conference full of fantastic people.

There in the small town of Faenza, Italy, my perspective on data visualization drastically changed.

Among the smart and designers that spoke was Nicholas Felton. Felton has made a name for himself by creating these Annual Reports about his life. The reports are shockingly comprehensive, documenting details of each year of his experiences to an obsessive degree: where he went, what he ate, who he met. Everything. Felton even created a book that accounted for every single conversation he had in 2013. And these reports consistently blow everyone away, not only because they are visually appealing, but because of the depth of the stories he tells through pure data.

Felton was running a two day workshop called "The New Aesthetic of Data Narrative" with Francesco Franchi, the Art Director at IL magazine in Italy whose detailed infographics are out of this world. After day 1 introductions and icebreakers, both Felton and Francesco gave extended presentations about what they do and how they do it. My eyes were glued to every incredible slide.

And suddenly it hit me they were not really talking about design. That is: they weren't focused on the final, physical step of a design process. They cared about much more.

x-ray research

Research is the key

What they were talking about was research. Studying, calling, rummaging, digging, recording, stealing, discovering. Within the first hour of the first day, I learned a critical secret to data visualization: how a piece of data viz looks is only the final layer. True richness comes through the type of data you choose when trying to tell a story and the effort required to gather that data. That work becomes part of the narrative. Francesco Franchi and his team sometimes spend months researching one infographic when the design itself may only take just a handful of days. Take a close look at Felton’s Annual Reports and it's hard not to be amazed at the sheer amount of effort, time and focus involved in this work.

Traditionally, when assembling data around on given topic, I tend to accept whatever assets I'm offered without much critical thought. For example: much of the data used for visualizations are drawn from studies or polls. And certainly it's possible to tell beautiful, information-rich stories with poll data. But now I ask myself: where else can we gather data? What can be translated into a number? What nooks and crannies can we scrape to unearth really interesting nuggets, and how can we mine those nuggets to expose patterns? As Francesco put it in his presentation, "Rich content brings meaning to a graphic."

The hidden data

Later that day we began our group projects, focused on creating a data visualization about the town we were in, Faenza. We discussed possible topics, threw ideas around, and looked for different types of themes or ideas we could unearth data around. We finally decided to make a graphic about the ceramics that Faenza id famous for. We researched for hours, digging through wikipedia entries, old research papers. One person in our group went to the local library for an hour or two looking for books on the topic.

It was a struggle to find "interesting information," and in hindsight perhaps we should have done more research before we choose a topic. It felt like we were trying to force a story angle that didn't quite fit. Along the way, Felton stopped by our table and we talked about our process and mentioned our struggle to find a good story to tell.

"Just look somewhere really different. Think about where ceramics are today," he said.

This changed everything. It was strange that all it took to crack the nut was to not think of it as a nut. We started looking at eBay and other auctioning sites, stepping away from the wikipedia articles and the dated research papers. Though it wasn’t perfect, the eBay data we were scraping was fascinating. This was the moment when I really woke up to the fact data was everywhere, even weird places. My mind was kinda blown. I felt like Neo.

x-ray infographic
This was our team's final infographic about Faience ceramics. We had roughly 8 hours to research and design.

Let's take a moment to think about something.

You're probably sitting next to a coffee mug. The mug holds some amount of liquid. It has size and weight. It was made somewhere, maybe by hand. What does this mug say about you? All these attributes of your mug could be translated into a nice infographic. But what about Ally's coffee mug, or Jake's coffee mug with the bear on it, or Yuri's mug, the one other folks in the Vox Media DC office keep using even though he tries to hide it at his desk? How about every coffee mug in the whole office? What do they collectively tell us about the office? What is our mug to employee ratio? How much coffee does our team drink? Does drinking a lot of coffee mean you're working harder?

This is my brain now. It's like I've been handed X-ray specs, and now when I look around me I see that data is hiding everywhere. That data creates patterns and those patterns can tell truly interesting stories.

x-ray hat

Magic isn't real, but hard work is.

Those few days taught me a lot. Most importantly, though, I left with a basket of *feels.* I felt like people really do care about each other: everyone made an effort to communicate, despite language barriers. I felt confident that I could go home and apply what I learned to tangible projects. And I felt a deep reassurance that what I want to do is tell fun, educational, and interesting stories on the internet.

Those stories are everywhere for anyone to grab. They won't tell themselves, and you won't see them unless you look in the right spot. So let's try harder to build deeper stories. Squint your eyes at the mundane or the ordinary, and uncover special stories where they hide. Let's tell a story both through Big Data picture and the itty bitty data details. Lets recognize rich patterns that emerge from that cold, hard, ass-kicking, unshakable data, and bring that story to life with beautiful and clever design.

Put on your own pair of X-ray Specs. Good data is everywhere, but the work that leads to true data journalism and design magic starts long before you even open InDesign or Illustrator.

illustrations by Tyson Whiting (me!)